You are being redirected - hold on tight!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Film Review: Condor Still Soars, Relevant at its Core

Watching Michael Clayton last week gave me a hankering for some of the films that clearly influenced director/screenwriter Tony Gilroy from the 1970s. There's Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's Network, one of my all-time faves, but I must have seen that 120 times and can easily replay it in my head at will. Then there is All The President's Men, which just happened to be on cable and which duly mesmerized me once again for the final 20 minutes that I caught. It had been years however since I had seen Sydney Pollack's thriller Three Days of the Condor.

Robert Redford must have been having a paranoid few years with Condor coming out in late 1975 and All The President's Men in 1976. In Condor Redford plays a bookish, if hunky, CIA analyst who spends his time with his head in the clouds solving riddles and fitting arcane clues together for his masters at Langley. He and his fellow analysts work at an elegant New York townhouse in quiet academic splendor.

He's roughly jolted into the more "operational" side of things when his entire unit is brutally eliminated. His escape is by chance, even more so once we realize that his work was the likely catalyst for the hits. The film then goes into classic thriller mode at this point as Redford has to figure out who is after him, why, and how to stop them before it's too late.

The similarities with Michael Clayton aren't so much in the plotting. However Condor director Sydney Pollack has a key acting role in Clayton, and both films expertly use New York City locales to ground their action in time and space.

The real kinship though is in the way in which both films subvert the thriller genre. In both, the central character is a highly specialized tool in the machinery of their organization. They are oblivious to the greater ramifications of what they do, in some sense willfully so. When they are shaken out of this stupor by unexpected events they are forced during the course of both films to re-evaluate their choices and come to terms with the fact that their actions had effects beyond their seeming isolation and may have furthered a destructive agenda. For Clayton its his law firm and the corporate power structure it protects, for Redford in Condor it's the CIA.

Max Von Sydow brilliantly plays Joubert in Condor, a methodical cold-blooded assassin. Eventually we are made to see that Joubert is not so different than Redford is at the beginning of the film -- in a state of willful not-knowingness following and executing (literally) orders because that is what his job is. The ramifications don't register because he won't allow them to. Redford might do his job with his mind and Joubert might do his with a gun but the end result is the same.
There are some minor flaws in Three Days of the Condor. The relationship with Faye Dunaway (who is terrific here) feels a bit forced. Granted Redford is bookish but hunky but the romance feels too often like a screenwriter's conceit rather than an organic occurance. That's also true of Redford's occaisional leaps of logic. Granted he's a brilliant analyst but at times he's so far ahead of the audience that its a bit like watching one of those Star Trek episodes where a planet is about to explode or an alien is about to destroy the ship and someone says "What if we tried tritium nitrate crystals? It just might work!" Finally, the Dave Grusin score has aged rather poorly, feeling altogether too cheesy and 70s compared to the many timeless elements of the film. Pollack has always been a sucker for the "contemporary" score -- witness Grusin's hideous songs from Tootsie. The score made me long for the brilliant reserved stateliness of David Shire's work for All The President's Men.

Condor is still eminently watchable despite all this, and devastatingly contemporary. As Redford untangles the various threads of a conspiracy and sews them back together, he finds himself with a metaphorical sweater that Dick Cheney would wear proudly. And it don't say "World Best Grandpa." There is a grim aptness in the many scenes set in and around the then-new World Trade Center for today's audience.

The path of Redford's character, from self-imposed obliviousness to shocked comprehension is very much a reflection of the path many Americans found themselves on in the 1970s. The crimes of the Nixon adminstration had uncovered a stinking governmental cesspool, one that included rogue intelligence agencies and secret Presidential orders. Now, more than twenty-five years later, has anything changed?

Three Days of The Condor gets four out of five Cheneys:

Here's the trailer:

No comments: